I live in San Francisco now, so I'm always looking for an excuse to go into the desert, to work on my personal research project: figuring out how and why people project their fantasies and fears onto this inhospitable landscape. That's why Pioneertown, a faux Wild West town constructed in the 1940s by entrepreneurial cowboy actors and extras from Hollywood, became a blinking red dot on my road map the minute I heard about it from a bemused friend. Pioneertown was meant to be more than a set for TV shows; its utopian founders, who probably believed that these movies would be made forever, imagined a place where bit players, seamstresses, set dressers, wranglers, electricians, and carpenters could live year-round.
And from 1946 through the mid-1950s, this scheme actually worked. Depending on the show being
filmed there, Pioneertown became Rattlesnake, Laredo, San Lorenzo, Silver City, Satan's Cradle, Nugget. It even turned into a magnet for folks who weren't necessarily associated with the business: During the boom years, for example, two Chinese guys who loved cowboy pictures--a Mr. Jew and a Mr. Gee--moved to Pioneertown from the East Coast to run the Golden Stallion Restaurant and Saloon. It was written into their lease that they had to make themselves scarce when an interior needed to be shot, but they didn't mind, since they made good money feeding the cast and crew. From its inception, Pioneertown (population now 500, according to the sign at the entrance) was both a real working town and a desert mirage.
I have a hard time finding the motel. There are, of course, no lights. Nor is there a gas station, a Denny's, or an all-night convenience store where I can ask directions.
After driving up and down the only paved road, I turn onto dirt and find myself on Mane Street, where Gene Autry filmed parts of The Gene Autry Show from 1950 to 1955 and where Annie Oakley, as played by Gail Davis, raced Target. Mane, on which the Cisco Kid fell in love with the beautiful saloon gal Lil. The moon and my headlights illuminate the faux frontier buildings, which are low to the ground, wooden, and--apparently--inhabited. There are lights on in some of them.
I locate the Pioneertown Motel, finally, at the end of Mane; it's across from Pappy and Harriet's Pioneertown Palace, and dark as hell. I'm a little scared, because it looks like I am the only guest, and it happens to be the opening night of Gus Van Sant's questionable remake of Psycho--the radio has been yammering about lonely motels and psychotics for the past 10 hours. I wish I had a gun. A note and a key are tacked to the manager's door: Ernie had gone to bed, but 'Club 9' is made up and waiting. (I'd requested room 9 after reading, in a Pioneertown brochure, that after a hard day of shooting, Gene Autry had used it for poker parties.) Using the hitching rail that runs the length of the motel to keep my balance, I race down the noisy wood-plank sidewalk to my room, where, instead of the cowboy memorabilia I'd imagined, I get posters of flowers, paintings of flowers, and ceramic plates painted with floral arrangements.
By the light of day, I am further sobered and distressed by post-boom Pioneertown. It's almost entirely deserted, like a ghost town with active P.O. boxes. I am unprepared for the displeasing effect of the town's deliberate blurring of fact and fiction, its conflation of present and past. There are Wild West facades with Goliath satellite dishes out back and rusting cars parked on Mane; the 'OK Corral' is so run down it wouldn't hold a lame horse. Then, finally, other people: one lone carload of disappointed, overheated German tourists.
I'd expected a certain lack of distinction between real and unreal, but the banality of it all makes me nostalgic for the purely imaginary world. So I raid Ernie's video library of TV serials made in Pioneertown during its heyday and retreat to my room. Over and over again, good guys in white hats triumph, freedom resists repression (except in the case of Indians, of course), and industriousness turns out to be more powerful than avarice. Safe inside Club 9, I know a world where no one good ever grows old or dies, and where seldom is seen a retired extra collecting his Social Security check from the post office.
PostñWorld War II America yearned for a world like Pioneertown, where everything is orderly and pristine, in a dusty sort of way, and where, when things do get messy, a hero like Gene Autry--whose ongoing appeal lies precisely in his unworldliness (he sings to his horse, for God's sake, and orders milk at the bar)--can always be counted on to clean it up again. I sympathize with that yearning, but isn't there something wrong with so reducing the complexity of frontier history?
Pioneertown has become a corpse with a pulse, a talking cowboy puppet. Even as kitsch, it is neither quaint nor forgettable. That's why, after just one day of watching this real fake town come to fake real life on TV, I succumb to a nauseating disorientation.
The next morning I burst into Ernie's room--he is piling hundreds of stuffed animals onto his double bed, which he seems to have to do every day--and tell him I wasn't going to be staying after all. I give him back his videos, he tears up my credit card slip, and I drive off. A few miles out of town I stop, put on my backpack, and start walking: no trail, no map. But I know where I am going.
From Hermenaut (#15). Subscriptions: $20 (4 issues) from Box 141, Allston, MA 02134.